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The “Blink-and-You’ll-Miss-It” Intervention in Kazakhstan

Kazakhstan’s stability is in everyone’s interest.

Words: Emma Ashford
Pictures: Erik Sandybaev
Date:

Last week’s Russian intervention in Kazakhstan came together so quickly that you might have been forgiven for assuming that a brigade or two of Russian troops simply got lost on their way to the ongoing buildup around Ukraine. Mere days after the first signs of unrest, Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev appealed to the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) for help; peacekeepers from the CSTO’s other member states were on the ground in Kazakhstan within 24 hours. More surprisingly, these troops may begin their withdrawal by the end of the week. 

The blink-and-you-might-miss-it intervention nonetheless provided some important reminders about security in Central Asia. Russia, for example, still has substantive interests and influence across Central Asia. Meanwhile, it appears that China is largely willing to stay hands-off on security matters in the region so long as its economic interests are secure. And — perhaps most counterintuitively — the intervention in Kazakhstan was also a reminder that US and Russian interests are not always in stark opposition; ongoing unrest in the oil- and gas-rich Central Asian state would have been bad for everyone. 

PETROSTATES AND PANDEMICS

Thanks to its massive endowments of oil, natural gas, coal, uranium and other natural resources, Kazakhstan’s political turmoil not only impacts its neighboring great powers but also the world economy. 

Though the violent protests in Kazakhstan erupted quickly, taking observers by surprise, they weren’t truly unexpected. Like many petrostates, Kazakhstan has experienced economic turmoil during the pandemic, with its population battered by lockdowns and illness. Almost one in 20 Kazakhs live below the poverty line, and annual inflation is running at an eye-watering 9%. With the Kazakh government heavily dependent on revenues from natural resource exports — the country is a top global oil exporter, a major exporter of natural gas to Europe and Asia, and a significant coal and uranium exporter — it has also suffered significant falls in revenue since 2020. Though international energy companies remain active in Kazakhstan — chief among them ExxonMobil, Chevron, and Russia’s Lukoil — Kazakhstan’s resources became worth far less as oil and gas prices plummeted during the pandemic. 

The results were predictable. The government began to consider reducing spending, most notably the reduction of fuel subsidies. The resulting price increases on the fuel that many Kazakhs use to power cars and houses hit hard. These increases also served to emphasize existing inequality within Kazakhstan, where much of the population doesn’t see concrete benefits from natural resource sales; profits are mostly captured by foreign companies and a small elite in the major cities. Frustration with this economic system, and with Kazakhstan’s authoritarian governance boiled over, and protests soon followed. 

There was, however, one more twist to this tale: Kazakhstan, which has been ruled for more than 30 years by strongman Nursultan Nazarbayev, has been undergoing a gradual power transition. The elderly Nazarbayev has wanted to slowly shift power to Tokayev and also retain some control behind the scenes. Yet, transitions in personalist authoritarian regimes are fraught with risk, and Tokayev appears to have sought to use this crisis, apparently successfully, to remove Nazarbayev from power and cement his own rule. 

A MODEL INTERVENTION?

As unrest began to boil over in Kazakhstan’s cities, Tokayev appealed to the CSTO for help. Though nominally a security alliance of various former Warsaw Pact countries, the CSTO is heavily dominated by Russia, which is the major military power in the region. Even though the CSTO has largely avoided getting involved in similar cases in recent years, this time the alliance moved swiftly, placing as many as 2500 troops on the ground within a week. 

These troops fulfilled two core functions. First, they stepped in to protect key infrastructure and government assets, effectively freeing the Kazakh security forces to focus on the protests and violence. Second, the rapid deployment sent a strong signal of Russian and regional support for Tokayev at a time when his backing among Kazakh elites might have been expected to be shaky. In both cases, the result was to tamp down unrest and to bolster Tokayev’s political standing. 

It’s always unpleasant to discuss authoritarian repression. Yet, there’s no denying that this has been a relatively successful intervention for Russia: It bolstered a friendly regime in its backyard and reinforced to autocrats in the region that it remains a reliable and efficient guarantor of their regime’s security. The Kazakh case thus looks very different from the ongoing tensions over Ukraine, or even to Belarus; all three countries carry some intrinsic importance to Moscow, but unlike Ukraine, Kazakhstan remains firmly embedded under Russia’s security umbrella. 

STABILITY AND THE GREAT POWERS

Perhaps the most interesting part of the crisis is that Kazakhstan — thanks to its massive endowments of oil, natural gas, coal, uranium, and other natural resources — is relatively important to the world economy, and is of core importance to its neighboring great powers. As much as 20% of all Chinese gas imports come from or via Kazakhstan, while Russia imports substantial quantities of Kazakh gas for re-export across Central Asia and to Europe. 

Indeed, it’s notable that China appeared happy to let Russia handle this crisis, despite that state’s growing commercial and energy ties with Kazakhstan. China’s willingness to take a hands-off approach here suggests — contrary to those who have argued that Russia and China are on a collision course over competing interests and influence in Central Asia — that Beijing might be willing to accept Russian security hegemony in Central Asia, so long as China maintains commercial influence and market access. This is not good news for those in Washington who hoped that tensions in Russia’s backyard might drive a wedge between Moscow and Beijing. 

For America, the crisis has been a cogent reminder that there are places where we have limited interests and correspondingly little leverage. Indeed, one could argue that the most pressing US interest in Kazakhstan remains stability; American companies have a vested interest in Kazakh energy production, and world markets are reliant on Kazakh exports. From this point of view, it could be argued that the Russian intervention was not necessarily bad for US interests. Yet, the long-term problems underlying Kazakhstan’s unrest remain unresolved: The economy is stagnant and dependent on oil production, and Russia’s lightning-quick intervention has simply helped to switch one aging autocrat for another. Further unrest is likely in Kazakhstan’s future. 

Emma Ashford is a columnist at Inkstick and a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s New American Engagement Initiative.

Emma Ashford

Columnist

Emma Ashford is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s New American Engagement Initiative, where she focuses on U.S.-Russian relations, Middle Eastern affairs, energy politics, and US grand strategy. She holds a doctorate from the University of Virginia.

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